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Scientists Under Scrutiny in Newly Revealed Interior Department Emails

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Scientists Under Scrutiny in Newly Revealed Interior Department Emails
This image of the shrinking perimeter of Sperry Glacier in Glacier National Park accompanied a press release that linked the shrinking of Montana's glaciers to climate change. USGS

On March 7, POLITICO published an in-depth look at how the climate skepticism of Trump appointees might impact their decision making.

That evening, The Washington Post reported on an Interior Department email thread released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that provides a behind-the-scenes look at the administration's aversion to accurate climate science.


In the emails, published by The Post, Douglas Domenech, the Department of the Interior's assistant secretary for insular areas and one of the appointees featured in the POLITICO report, complained about the language in a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) press release about shrinking glaciers in Montana.

The release, summarizing research the USGS had conducted with Portland State University, began with the sentence,"The warming climate has dramatically reduced the size of 39 glaciers in Montana since 1966, some by as much as 85 percent."

"This is a perfect example of them going outside their wheelhouse," Domenech complained in an email to three colleagues dated May 10, 2017.

"They probably are relying on the percentages but the most basic point is we need to watch for inflammatory adverbs and adjectives in their press releases," replied current Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott Cameron, who was then in charge of reviewing USGS releases.

The exchange reveals an intense level of scrutiny directed at the language scientists use to report their findings coming from people with a minimal understanding of the purpose of scientific research.

Portland State University geology professor and study co-author Andrew Fountain responded to Domenech's complaints. "This is what we do. It's not just that we look at glaciers, see they're retreating and shrug our shoulders," he told The Post. "We try to figure out what's going on."

While Trump's Department of Interior does require all press releases to pass a "policy review" before publication, this particular email exchange did not stop the USGS from posting the objectionable language on their website less than an hour later, where you can still read it.

But the reason the emails were obtained in the first place suggests that attitudes like Domenech's are having a stifling impact on scientific research at the Interior Department.

Joel Clement, a former Interior Department scientist who studied the impact of climate change on Alaskan Native communities before being suspiciously reassigned to accounting and later resigning, filed the FOIA request with Bureau of Land Management official Matthew Allen. The pair seek to determine if their involuntary reassignments were related to their climate work.

According to the Post, Interior Department officials did remove a line about climate change from a press release about a USGS study published in Scientific Reports. They also ordered National Park Service employees not to post on social media about a visit Mark Zuckerberg made to Glacier National Park after reading about its disappearing glaciers in the USGS study.

The Interior Department isn't the only department full of Trump appointees hostile to climate science. The administration set the tone minutes after Trump's inauguration by removing references to climate change from the White House website, among other alterations. And in January, the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative published a report detailing how the Trump administration has censored climate change information on government websites. "Language about climate change has been systematically changed across multiple agencies and program websites," the report found.

Former U.S. Sec. of Energy Ernest Moniz listens during the National Clean Energy Summit 9.0 on October 13, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Isaac Brekken / Getty Images for National Clean Energy Summit

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Amid reports that oil industry-friendly former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz remains under consideration to return to his old post in the incoming Biden administration, a diverse coalition of environmental groups is mobilizing for an "all-out push" to keep Moniz away from the White House and demand a cabinet willing to boldly confront the corporations responsible for the climate emergency.

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Climate change can evoke intense feelings, but a conversational approach can help. Reed Kaestner / Getty Images

Anger, anxiety, overwhelm … climate change can evoke intense feelings.

"It's easy to feel dwarfed in the context of such a global systemic issue," says psychologist Renée Lertzman.

She says that when people experience these feelings, they often shut down and push information away. So to encourage climate action, she advises not bombarding people with frightening facts.

"When we lead with information, we are actually unwittingly walking right into a situation that is set up to undermine our efforts," she says.

She says if you want to engage people on the topic, take a compassionate approach. Ask people what they know and want to learn. Then have a conversation.

This conversational approach may seem at odds with the urgency of the issue, but Lertzman says it can get results faster.

"When we take a compassion-based approach, we are actively disarming defenses so that people are actually more willing and able to respond and engage quicker," she says. "And we don't have time right now to mess around, and so I do actually come to this topic with a sense of urgency… We do not have time to not take this approach."

Reporting credit: ChavoBart Digital Media
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.

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